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Big ticket items buoy playset sales

Playsets aren’t selling as briskly as they did when the real estate market was hot, but a trend toward high-end product is keeping the category viable.

Just outside of Baltimore, Steve Watson, manager of Watson’s Fireplace & Patio, had plenty of reasons to drop playsets this year. It wasn’t a big category for the store to begin with. He displays one set and orders them at his customers’ request. Also, four other retailers within two miles of his store vie for the business.

Children enjoy testing playsets, such as the Sundeck by Backyard Adventures

Children enjoy testing playsets, such as the Sundeck by Backyard Adventures

“It’s a funky [category] to be involved with,” Watson said. “This year, a guy leased a roadside spot at the fairgrounds and put 20 playsets on display. That kind of thing can hurt.”

The weather also put a dent into playset sales across the country. Unusually high temperatures across the country weren’t conducive to backyard play.

“Kids told their parents, 'Take me to the pool or don’t take me anywhere at all,’” said Watson.

Then there was the sluggish real estate market. “[The real estate market] has a huge effect on our retail business,” said Rolf Zimmermann, general manager of Eastern Jungle Gym, a manufacturer and retailer based in Carmel, N.Y. “What happens with a lot of sales we’ve had in the last few years is a lot of home equity money has been used. New construction means people are out buying new stuff for their homes.”

When the real estate market took a hit this summer, those dollars disappeared — almost. Watson said a customer spent $18,000 on a playset at his store this year. He sold more than just the one, but that particular sale reminded him why he carries the category.

“We’re a very high end store and we sell to the very high end in that category,” said Watson, who sells Childlife playsets. “When we do it, we do it big.”

That’s exactly what keeps James Bassemier hopeful. Bassemier’s Fireplace, Patio & Spas in Evansville, Ind., began carrying Woodplay playsets this year. At press time, it had sold 15.

Eastern Jungle Gym’s Sky Deluxe model offers climbing and sliding options.

“Most of our sales were in the $3,500 to $5,000 range, and for the first year in the market we’re pretty satisfied with that,” Bassemier said. “How much people spend on these things is shocking to me. I think it has to do with safety for the kids and durability. Customers don’t want it to fall apart in three years.”

Aesthetics also have something to do with it.

“I think more people are getting into this wood type of playground equipment because it looks better,” said Robert A. Macchia of Q-Gardens Patio and Garden Center in Milford, Conn., which sells Backyard Adventures playsets. “People just don’t want a piece of junk in the back yard. We’re selling a lot more upscale product because they want bigger and better.”

As a result, Macchia said he expects playset sales to increase 40% over last year by the end of 2007. Kathy Emmert, president of Statuary World Patio & Fireside in Oklahoma City, said her two stores have had similar success.

“I believe people are buying bigger playsets than ever before,” she said. “It just blows your mind. A lot of homes are putting $10,000 to $15,000 playsets in their yard.”

These sales don’t come easy, however. Emmert displays playsets at local lawn and garden shows and state and county fairs.

“This category isn’t for everyone,” she said. “There’s a lot of service involved. When people move, I offer to take their playset down for them and get it ready to be packed in a truck. If they’re moving to a new house in town, we can move it to the new property. I can even bring it in and refurbish it for them. There’s a lot of labor, things you have to be equipped to do.”

Space is another prerequisite. Emmert’s two stores sit on large parcels of land that allow her to display 10 to 15 playsets year round. Bassemier, meanwhile, had to learn the hard way.

“I lost my parking space,” he said. “We removed seven employee parking spaces and knocked a fence out and went into our back lot so we could put up three full playsets there.”

He knew he had no choice, because the one thing customers want to do when they shop for playsets is let their kids play on the floor model. At that point, Watson said most of them already have a good idea of what they’re looking for.

“Anyone who is buying a playset has been researching online,” Watson said. “It’s amazing how knowledgeable customers are when they come in here.”

That doesn’t mean playsets sell themselves. Most vendors produce detailed catalogs their dealers pass along to customers.

“We have a complete catalog and price list that allows them to design a playset themselves,” said Macchia, whose customers can add everything from swings and slides to rock climbing walls. “Then it takes time to explain the features and price it all out. It’s not an easy sell. It’s time consuming.”

And because buying patterns are moving upscale, the sales effort can take even longer. Customers are simply demanding more. Surfacing, for instance, is becoming a more common add-on sale.

“About 30% of our playset sales include some type of safety surfacing, and that increases more and more every year,” said Zimmermann. “When people are putting in a $10,000 playground, they want it to look nice. Surfacing adds aesthetic appeal.”

Consumers also expect assembly to be part of the deal.

“No one wants to put anything together themselves,” Macchia said. “Luckily, we have a pretty constant assembly crew. They’re paid well and they’re pretty experienced. They can do a sizable set in mostly a morning.”

Not every retailer is so lucky. Assembly service, and all the issues that come with it, is too much to bear for a few retailers.

“Insurance liability is tremendous,” said Jennifer Troll, co-owner, Extension Patio in Trenton, N.J. “I shopped several insurance companies last year that wouldn’t cover me because we carry, assemble and deliver playsets.”

Troll said Extension Patio had a down year in playsets, while sales in general were up. She’s undecided about her future with playsets, but Lawn & Leisure in suburban Washington, D.C., is already getting out.

“We’ve probably had [playsets] for 10 years, but we just don’t do much with it,” said Lawn & Leisure President Tom Rother. “We haven’t ordered for this year, and the only things we ordered last year were fill-in pieces. It’s not a business we’re going to continue doing because we’ve had a difficult time finding reliable installers.”

As long as customers continue to pony up $10,000 for a playset, other retailers said it’s worth dealing with the display and customer service demands. Zimmermann said Eastern Jungle is building a package-pricing system to help simplify the buying process for consumers. Bassemier said he wants display playsets by February to get a jump on the spring selling season.

And Watson, with all that competition and economic strife in his local community this year, said he’ll continue to offer playsets next spring. Who knows? If the real estate market rebounds, he could get more than one of those $18,000 sales.

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